debt
The National Debt Clock in New York, showing the U.S. debt as more than $16 trillion, is seen March 1. Newscom

As the budget battles in Washington persist, U.S. Catholic leaders and others are arguing on moral and religious grounds that politicians need to steer spending cuts away from the poor and vulnerable.  

“Our long-term fiscal challenges will not be solved by increasing the burden on those who Jesus called the ‘least of these,’” said a Feb. 25 statement by nearly 100 Christian leaders who belong to the ecumenical coalition Circle of Protection. 

But is there also a moral and even Catholic case to be made for rolling back spending, even if it means less aid to the poor in the near term? Some advocates of austerity think so. 

While those who belong to the Circle of Protection are likely to invoke values such as compassion and solidarity, others with a different perspective are just as quick to cite virtues such as temperance and prudence.

Generational concerns

“We’re spending money we don’t have,” Jeffrey Polet, a political scientist at Hope College in Holland, Mich., told Our Sunday Visitor. “The bottom line is that we want a full range of services and we don’t want to pay for them.” 

Polet
Polet

Polet, also a senior editor of the online journal Front Porch Republic, said: “It’s a combination of greed, intemperance and a kind of luxuriousness. In an older time it would have been called decadence.” Asked who the greedy are, he pointed to “interest groups” that oppose any cuts in programs that affect their constituencies. 

Among so-called deficit hawks, probably the most familiar moral argument is a generational one — that we are saddling our children and their children with a crushing debt burden. That’s the word from the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which dedicates a Web page to budget principles with regularly updated commentary. 

The first principle is that “reform of federal spending must properly balance responsibilities to current and future generations.” The institute, headed by Father Robert A. Sirico and headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., elaborates: “Concern for future generations must start with the dignity of the person and fully recognize the essential right of future generations to exist and be provided with opportunities to flourish.” That means less spending, it says. 

Polet, a Catholic convert, roots the generational concern more deeply in Scriptures. He pointed to the familiar biblical motif of inheritance (as in Genesis — “Abraham gave all he had to Isaac”). 

“There’s this idea that parents owe their children an inheritance. You don’t take your inheritance and squander it, to the disadvantage of your own progeny,” said Polet, who chairs the political science department at Hope, an ecumenical Christian institution with Calvinist roots. 

“And that’s what I see us doing,” he added. “We’ve taken the cultural, financial inheritance we’ve been given, and we’ve squandered it in a lot of ways. So the world that we’re giving our children doesn’t seem to be as well-ordered as the world we inherited, certainly not from a financial viewpoint.”

‘Well-ordered world’

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Polet acknowledged that there’s a robust debate about how unmanageable the national debt is, as a percentage of the overall U.S. economy, and how much of a burden it will be in the future. There’s also much debate about whether fiscal austerity right now, in the midst of a still-undernourished economy, is the best way to deal with the problem. 

But aside from the economics, is there another way of looking at the moral question of intergenerational solidarity? Do our obligations to the future extend only to the national debt? Or does the “well-ordered world” also need to include good schools, a solid infrastructure and a clean environment — which may require public investment now? 

All that is part of a balanced way of looking at fiscal obligations, Polet agreed. “But if the debt problem gets too out of control, it’s going to make all those other things impossible,” he emphasized. 

Few would deny that the debt is at least a long-term problem. 

In their statement addressed to President Obama and top lawmakers, the Circle of Protection leaders said, “We understand that the country’s fiscal health will require further cost savings and additional revenue.” At the same time, they argued that what’s needed is deficit reduction that does not increase poverty. The signers expressed the general view, for example, that Medicare “can be reformed in ways that do not harm those who depend on the health care coverage it provides, especially seniors with modest means.” 

Among the leaders of that coalition is Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Long-term consequences

As to the concerns about cutting aid to the “least of these,” Polet said that the long-term consequences of failing to cut would also fall upon them. “The longer we wait to address our budgetary problems, the greater will be the burden placed on the poor,” he said — arguing in part that an uncontrolled debt would eventually force even deeper cuts. 

To some ears, that may sound like destroying safety-net programs to save them. And if it does, it’s because Polet and others have a more expansive critique of government and society. For one thing, he accentuates the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which holds that social problems are ideally addressed at levels closest to those problems — for example, in local communities. 

“I firmly believe that the Church teaches rightly that there ought to be a preferential option for the poor,” he said. But he questioned whether that option is “best managed through a system of taxation and centralized bureaucracy,” and added:“My obligation to the poor is much greater than filing my income taxes, and ought to be greater.” 

What Catholic social teaching says is that people should do both — reach out to the poor on their own and through the political community that we call government. 

William Bole writes from Massachusetts.